Side event: COVID and the Mekong: how the drug situation has changed and what it means for the future

UNODC (moderator, Lilli Sang, Regional Office for Southeast Asia): In the past few years, we have witnessed the continual expansion of drug markets, including manufacturing and trafficking, in the Mekong region to be shipped out to profitable markets in the region. Today’s side event will bring some opportunities to reflect on the reasons behind this.

Thailand (Deputy Secretary-General, Office of the Narcotics Control Board): The Golden Triangle, one of the largest drug production sites in the world, is located in the Mekong region. It has tremendous side effects for countries in and outside of the region. Thailand is committed to cooperation with the Mekong countries, namely Cambodia, Laos, China and Vietnam, with the support of the UNODC as secretariat. Since 1993, the spirit of the Mekong MOU has been reflected in efforts to disrupt the trafficking of drugs and their precursors which originate in and around the Golden Triangle, as well as putting pressure of syndicates operating in the area.

With the COVID pandemic, it was thought that our channels of communications would be disrupted but this was not the case, given the opportunities to communicate virtually. I express gratitude to partners and the UNODC team.

Cambodia (Meas Vyrith, Chairman of the National Authority for Combating Drugs – video message): I extend my sincere thanks and high appreciation to the ONCB (Thailand) and UNODC as co-hosts of the Mekong MOU side event at the 64th Commission on Narcotic Drugs, and for inviting me as the upcoming Chair of the Mekong MOU. I totally agree with and support the ONCB as the current Chair on the challenges brought by COVID. The world was hit hard by the pandemic. It’s impact has not readily affected drug markets except the trafficking routes have become more complex. The amount of drugs and precursor chemicals seized remain high. Drugs have been reportedly smuggled via postal services and maritime routes. A number of drugs were recently found washed ashore in Cambodia and other countries in the sub-region. It is worth to highlight figures from 2020 and 2019 showing a 5-fold increase in the amounts of drugs and chemicals seized in 2020. There are growing concerns about the impact of COVID and the challenges for law enforcement. The increase in seizures were driven by an increase in law enforcement operations working in the border areas. Cambodia has continued it’s anti-drug campaign for the 5th consecutive year and the COVID-19 pandemic has not hindered our work on this campaign. Cambodia has never seized such a large amount of drugs and chemicals (1 tonne) in 2020 – a remarkable outcome. Together with UNODC, we have conducted webinars, meetings and trainings online. We convened in November last year on the sub-regional action plan 11 and earlier this year amongst focal points on the Mekong MOU. Now much more important than ever. On the one hand, I encourage partner member states to continue information sharing, deepen cooperation and coordination of efforts at all levels, and I stress that we should draw conclusions from lessons learned in 2020 to assess the outcomes yielded from the online platforms in order to track tasks and explore further opportunities to address the challenges from the ongoing impacts of the COVID pandemic. Thank you for your ongoing support to Cambodia. It is this spirit of openness and collaboration that is needed to address these ongoing challenges.

China (National Narcotics Control Commission): In 2020, in light of the sudden outbreak of COVID-19, China narcotics agencies were charged with both COVID and narcotics control but despite these challenges, our achievements were many: 64,000 cases solved, 92,000 suspects arrested, 247,000 drug use incidents reviewed among others. However availability of drugs increased. Large seizures of drugs and chemicals originating from the Golden Triangle have been made. We make the following 4 proposals:

  1. Strengthen capacity building on the unique features of drug cases during the pandemic and enhance law enforcement capacity in drug detection and testing
  2. Improve operational efficiency with the goal of destroying drug laboratories, and share information promptly and work together in coordinated way
  3. To enhance cooperation, leave from each other best practices in drug treatment etc. and how to detest drug laboratories
  4. Consider establishing a drug-related personnel database, e.g. drug leaders and technicians.

As a major donor to the Mekong MOU mechanism, China is committed to stop the flow of drugs from the Golden Triangle. We express our appreciation to the UNODC for playing a significant role in this mechanism. We call on all colleagues to continue supporting the MOU.

UNODC (Jeremy Douglas, Regional Office for Southeast Asia): COVID-19 changed the drug market significantly in 2020 and continues to do so. External and political factors have long had an impact on the drug business here and globally. The impacts were felt further in the places where drugs were produced. Despite the serious impacts of the pandemic, we are truly pleased that members have remained committed and engaged, advancing our shared regional plan to the extent possible. A few highlights: information and intelligence continue to be shared including sensitive information on trafficking of drugs and chemicals, extensive border cooperation with ASEAN member states, and continued advancement in drug policy reform in the areas of drug demand reduction and other areas. The situation has changed remarkably but the Mekong MOU has kept pace with the change. My colleague Inshik Kim will share more details about these changes.

UNODC (Inshik Kim, Drugs Researcher, Regional Office for Southeast Asia): I will share some data on how the drug trends in the Mekong have evolved. Countries in the lower Mekong (countries aside from China) make up most of the drug seizures. There has been no change in 2020 compared with 2019 for the drug-related cases and arrests in the Lower Mekong but there have been decreases in China. When looking at the price of methamphetime, Cambodia and Thailand recorded the lowest ever prices in 2020 (including a decrease from 2019) together with an increase in purity (including an increase from 2019) indicating an overall increase in availability. There were record seizures of crystal methamphetamine, including 12 seizures that were over 1 tonne. Organised crime groups are increasingly targeting Cambodia (going beyond Myanmar) for synthetic drug manufacture and reprocessing, including precursors that are used to produce methamphetamine and ecstasy. There have also been increasing quantities of drugs trafficked via Lao PDR – the trafficking routes often go through Thailand to Malaysia and beyond. There were steep increases in the seizures of drugs in north-eastern Thailand, with amounts seized in 2020 breaking records of seizures in previous years. Significantly limited seizures of key precursor chemicals were seized. Increasing quantities of drugs and chemicals were trafficked via Lao PDR en route to Myanmar. There is also increasing use on non-controlled chemicals to produce drugs, e.g. propionyl chloride. The impacts on drug use can be seen with the steep increases in the numbers of registered meth users in Vietnam and in prevalence of methamphetamine use in Thailand from 2011 – 2019. So it is important to focus on precursor control. My presentation is not to point fingers but to highlight need for collaboration with the UNODC.

UNODC (moderator): Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the partner member states all continued their control efforts, as seen particularly in a joint operation led by Thailand.

Thailand (Office of the Narcotics Control Board): I will cover the background and details of the operation and the challenges posed by COVID. Operation 1511 was under the 4-year plan (2019 – 2022) for the Safe Mekong Operation Plan. It focuses on 7 measures including precursors and chemical control, interception of illicit drug smuggling by land routes and border checkpoints, and interception of illicit drug smuggling along at-risks border areas. The Golden Triangle Operation 1511 was launched in a ministerial meeting of 6 member countries (Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, China, Vietnam, Cambodia) chaired by the Minister of Justice in November 2019. Thailand then hosted a senior officials meeting to formulate the joint action plan. Each country launched an initiative, e.g. the white village policy in Cambodia. The outcomes of the Operation from 1 Dec 2019 – 31 Dec 2020 included arrests of people (16,348 people in 13,476 cases), and seizures of drugs and precursor chemicals. Example cases in countries in 2020 include: seizures of 270 tons of essential chemicals and 1.7 million methamphetamine tablets in 2020 in China (including arrests of offenders), seizures of 198 kgs of crystal methamphetamine, 8kg of methamphetamine and more than 3 tons of essential chemical and drug production equipment (with arrest of 2 people) in Cambodia, dismantling of drug production sites and seizures of huge amounts of chemicals and drugs in Shan State, Myanmar, seizures of 30 tons of ethyl acetate and 72 tons of proprionyl chloride in Laos, 250 kgs of ‘ice’ + 17.5kg heroin + 35kgs of crystal methamphetamine and 1 kg of ketamine (plus arrests of 2 people) in Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar cooperated on legal assistance to arrange for extradition of a drug offender from Myanmar to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam cooperated to seize 5kg of ‘ice’, Lao and Vietnam police also collaborated to seize 60,000 tablets of methamphetamine and dried cannabis.

On the problems and obstacles during COVID, it didn’t affect the movement of crime syndicates and overall drug situation, there was lack of manpower because many officers were diverted to work on tasks relating to the pandemic, and since member countries couldn’t send their officers to other countries, cooperation was conducted mostly through video conferencing.

Thank you to all the partner countries and UNODC for their support. We hope this side event can affect efforts of all countries to solve the world drug problem.

UNODC (moderator): Our work has been affected severely and all our meetings had to be converted to online formats. However we have achieved a lot including through enhancing cooperation in the delivery of training programmes, border control programmes, conducting data and trends analysis under the SMART programme as well as the alternative development programme in Myanmar. Everyone is working hard but we still need to collaborate with each other. Later this year, with the support of the NACD (Cambodia) we will be hosting the senior officials meeting in person or online which will be a milestone on improving our collaboration.

UNODC (Jeremy Douglas): The challenges remain high, with seizure amounts remaining at record highs, with drops in prices and increases in purity. Regional cooperation remains important to address these challenges. You can be assured that our office will continue to work on gathering of data and information, and facilitating cooperation between all the member states.

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